Brown Lives Don’t Matter in the Dark and Cruel World of 'Visaranai'

Visaranai compels us to interrogate our presumptions about the bourgeois state apparatus.


Director: Vetrimaaran
Cast: Dinesh, Aadukalam Murugadoss, Samuthirakani, Kishore, Anandhi
Length: 118 minutes
Studio: Wunderbar Films & Grass Root Film Company
Year: 2015
India Release Date: 2016-02-05

Two parallel film industries have crystallized in Kollywood recently. One manufactures mythologies about larger-than-life warriors who vanquish evil, panders feel-good bubblegum romances and takes us on foolish flights of fancy that go nowhere. The other is an uncompromising brand of cinéma vérité plundered from the depths of human depravity where unimaginable experiences lay hidden.

The latter holds up a mirror to society, reflecting man’s cannibalistic impulses when he transmogrifies into a political animal in pursuit of power and wealth. This anti-mainstream cinema recreates a social universe not dissimilar to ours, where the law of the jungle prevails.

Venturing into emotional realms where other Indian films fear to tread, Visaranai or Interrogation, is director Vetrimaaran’s treatise about the vulnerable trapped in a nebulous system. The Tamil novel Lock Up (2006) by auto-rickshaw driver M.Chandrakumar, recounting his experience of police brutality, provided the basis for the screenplay.

This print-to-screen film has already made its rounds on the international and local film festival circuits. Prestigious prizes such as the Audience Award at the South Asian International Film Festival held in New York in 2015 and the Venice Film Festival Amnesty International Award 2015 raised expectations before the full theatrical release this year.

Four young Tamil migrant workers arrested for a crime they did not commit in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh find themselves in a slaughterhouse of a police station. To extract a false confession that would placate higher officials, cops torture the youths who get implicated in a political struggle involving the highest echelons of wealth and power.

The working class men’s insistence on maintaining their dignity despite the humiliatingly painful ordeal and their encounters with the ruthless functionaries of the state constitutes the main narrative. Abjuring the usual song-and-dance intrusions, Visaranai makes its intentions to be a serious film very clear.

A mood of dread surrounds the progression of the narrative, portending violence or doom at any turn. The physical abuse, or the sound of wooden batons battering flesh and bone, reverberates to shock both characters in the film and audiences alike. Yet, Visaranai is neither splatter flick nor ‘goreno’ film variety. Eschewing grotesque or gratuitous violence only lends dignity and authenticity to the human drama. The anticipation of horrors that await the characters is sufficiently riveting.

On more than one occasion, the director messes with your mind to make you think: ‘Who would be so crazy as to…?’ As each respite only gives way to further torture, the audience loses its innocence together with protagonists who start to realize the all-pervasive nature of corruption. We also emotionally invest in the characters and cheer their courage when they stand by their scruples despite the coercion.

However, the characterization of power asymmetries between perpetrators and victims ensures that there will be no escapist closures to this story. Catharsis, alas, will have to wait.

The claustrophobic mise-en-scène and controlled lighting are central to the ambience of hopelessness and fatalism throughout. Characters speak of inaccessible powerbrokers who dictate the fates of those below them, but we never see them. Rather than being told about the elaborate complexes of the law and order bureaucracy, we are taken through labyrinthine police stations, with interconnected rooms and antechambers. The visuals inform us that deep in the belly of the leviathan, there is nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.

There's no space for pretty photography or glossy aesthetics either; the strength of Visaranai is in the screenplay and the performances by the actors. The cinematography is subservient to the storytelling. Nevertheless, for all its merits, superior background music would have cemented the film’s status as a cinematic masterpiece. The film score of Visaranai stands out as the sole unimpressive aspect.

Footage of Chandrakumar speaking at Amnesty International’s award presentation ceremony in Venice is included just before the end credits to establish the interface with reality. Chandrakumar’s haranguing of the state for its excesses is intended to bring resolution to a narrative that ends abruptly. Yet, the segue into documentary imagery is misplaced in a film that has kept its political message subdued to avoid pamphleteering. The filmmakers, who for the most part, treated the audience as intelligent filmgoers able to appreciate subtle subtexts, suddenly decided to drive home the message with a sledgehammer to the head. The liberal humanism of Visaranai does need proclamations to be effective.

It's no coincidence that Visaranai is also the title of Tamil translations of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Is the white-collar worker K.K. who is taken into custody in Visaranai, an allusion to Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial? We may never know. Nevertheless, Kafka’s novella intertextually shares with Vetrimaaran’s film anxieties about the bourgeois state apparatus bequeathed by modernization. The modern state, Visaranai would have us know, dehumanizes the very subjects it is meant to safeguard. When the state violates the social contract by abusing its authority, modernity fails on its promise to curtail savagery and instead unleashes a primal instinct for self-preservation.

The filmmakers have updated a novel set in the '80s and imbued the narrative with a contemporaneously transcendental appeal. At a point in history when reports about police brutality in liberal democracies such as United States, South Africa, Australia, India, and Canada preponderate in the international media, Visaranai compels us to interrogate our own presumptions about the bourgeois state apparatus and political accountability. When one of the four protagonists, the Tamil Muslim, Afsal is questioned whether he belongs to Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or LTTE by cops looking for a pretext to throw someone behind bars, it speaks to our collective conscience as global citizens.

The almost masterpiece Visaranai reaffirms our fundamental belief in the Blackstone credo: it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

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